Behind the Christmas Carol: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks is a Christmas carol that describes the angels appearance to the shepherds as described in Luke 2:8-14.

The song was written by Nahum Tate, who was England’s poet Laureate, and an Irish

Nahum Tate

hymnists.  He is best known for his adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear.


While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks is the only Christmas hymn authorized to be sung by the Anglican church in the 18th Century.

The exact writing of the hymn is unknown but it first appeared in Tate and Nicholas Brady’s 1700 supplement to their New Version of the Psalms of David of 1696.

In the United Kingdom the song is sung to a tune known as Winchester Old.  The tune and hymn text were probably first published together in an arrangement by William Henry Monk for Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861.

In the United States, the song is sung to an arrangement by Lowell Mason that was a variation on a Handel aria from his opera Siroe. The tune is known as Harmonica Sacra.

How would you have reacted if you were the shepherds and the angels appeared?


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